CBS Sunday Morning correspondent and author Bill Geist is the recipient of the 2016 Governors' Award bestowed by the New York Chapter of NATAS at the 59th Annual New York Emmy® Awards. He was interviewed by Emmy® Award winner John Bathke, a member of the Board of Governors. Here is their conversation from March 15th, 2016.
JB: What was your first job in journalism?
BG: Actually there were several firsts. There was one where I worked in advertising answering complaint letters to a food company in the advertising department. Then I was a photographer in Vietnam in the Army. I count that as journalism. And then I went to work for the suburban section of the Chicago Tribune writing about sewer bond referendums, what vegetables to serve in school cafeterias, new left turn lane. That wasn't my specialty, those were just the stories. (Laughter). It didn't hold my interest very long but I had the job for eight years. It was down in a basement outside O'Hare Airport. Then I started writing kind of a humor column about life in the suburbs. And I sent some examples to the New York Times and got hired there. And there I wrote the About New York column, which was kind of looking at New York as another planet.
JB: Well, that has been your specialty in your career. You have a knack for telling quirky stories. What elements does a story have to have for you to want to put your stamp on it?
BG: That's a very difficult question to answer because they're all over the map. I guess they would ideally have a quirky character in them or be a quirky event, something different. The intent is trying to train people to have a different sensibility and get people to notice interesting and fun things in their lives rather than just putting their head down and burrowing ahead, and reading all the horrible headlines that are in the paper today.
JB: That's difficult to ask of people because we go through our daily lives so quickly, so focused on our job or our family...to take the time to observe the way you do, it's really a gift that you have.
BG: Well, I think it's nice for people to have something like that, whether it's in the paper or in the newscast. Something that is a little out of the ordinary that maybe makes them smile. And it's ideally to think a little bit.
JB: CBS hired you from the New York Times. Did you anticipate all these years later that you would still be in television?
BG: Well, working at a newspaper you get used to living on not much money. So this offer from CBS, I thought 'well, I'll just have to work a couple years now and then I'll retire.' Alas, it's 29 years later and we're still talking about this. But I couldn't have a better job. I just think of things I want to do and see and they've agreed with about 99 percent of them."
JB: Why did you keep working and not retire as you had anticipated?
BG: (Laughter) Well, I couldn't really! It was kind of pie in the sky. What I thought was a lot of money in New York was not a lot of money.
JB: What has the job brought to your life?
BG: It's just so much fun. It's fun to be on the lookout for odd people, odd places, odd events. And it's brought a lot of joy to my life. I mean, I've been able to do what I wanted to do. And kind of did back in college as well. Just look out for things that were ridiculous and talk to my friends about them. And that's kind of what I've been able to do my whole career.
JB: Four years ago you announced that you have Parkinson's disease. It's something you had for 20 years or so but hadn't told your children or your employers. How has being public about it changed your life?
BG: It hasn't changed it entirely. We go out and our fans of the show ("CBS Sunday Morning")...and the show is more popular than it's ever been...they come up to me and just talk about the show and pieces that they enjoyed. So it hasn't changed in that sense. It's just that I know that they must know.
JB: And you're feeling ok?
BG: Well, not good enough. I don't want to dwell on that, but it's difficult. It's the kind of disease where it's noticeable. I fessed up to it on the air one day when I had started getting letters from people, 'are you ok?' Some guessing that I had Parkinson's. It's almost an impossible thing to pull off on television. But luckily, I have great producers and the Executive Producer of the show, Rand Morrison, when I told him I had it he said, 'I don't care. Just keep doing what you're doing.' So that was a pretty great response.
JB: It probably gave you peace of mind that nothing was going to happen to your job.
BG: Well, that's right. It would have been very easy for them to say 'this is ridiculous,' you know. But I think it has gotten to the point where I don't have quite the energy I used to have. Travel is difficult. I mean, I'm 70 years old, now. Course, at CBS people normally retire at over 100! (Laughter).
JB: You have to look at this as if you're no where near retirement, Bill!
BG: I'm a spring chicken at CBS! I've seen Andy Rooney and all the guys from 60 Minutes, it's unbelievable. If I were completely healthy I'd have a whole other career ahead of me, another 30 years.
JB: Is there a story that you've done that is the most memorable or affected you the most?
BG: The ones that affected me the most are not the funny ones. Like September 11th we had 12 or 14 guys who I was acquainted with from Ridgewood, New Jersey and I went around and did a piece on that. That was probably the hardest. But I think overall the ones that affect me are just people. A lot of entrepreneurs that just do things that are fantastic in thinking up ways to solve a problem. One of my favorites was a guy out in Northern California...a 92 year old publisher of his newspaper. He did all the photographs, the adds, the layout, the printing and the delivery. And most of his subscribers lived on ranches. And he was a pilot...he was the oldest pilot in America. He's (since) passed away...It was a 1940s plane, so when it came time to go up in the air, the crew looked to the 92 year old pilot and looked at the 50 year old plane and said they wouldn't be able to get their equipment in the plane. So I was going to have to go alone. So I went up with him and he folded the papers in his lap and buzzed the ranches and dropped the papers by the front porch. And he was a favorite of mine because he was an old guy with a lot of spirit and determination. The stories I like the best are the ones that are just about impossible to believe.
John Bathke is a reporter and the founding host of the arts and entertainment series ON THE SCENE on News 12 New Jersey, and a member of the NY NATAS Board of Governors.